Leaving Sacramento: Term Limits Prompt Primary Challenges

Posted May 16, 2005 at 6:32pm

Earlier this month, California state Assemblyman Joe Nation announced that he would challenge Rep. Lynn Woolsey (Calif.) in the 2006 Democratic primary.

Woolsey thinks she knows why.

“He said publicly that he’s term limited, he needs another job and that Lynn Woolsey should retire,” she says.

Nation insists that is not the case. He notes that he ran for the North Bay-area 6th district seat in 1992, when Woolsey first won, and says his interest has always been in foreign affairs and economic policy.

“I think Congress is the best place for me to serve my constituents,” the 48-year-old lawmaker says.

Nation is not the only term-limited member of the California Legislature planning to challenge a sitting House Member next year. In the San Diego-based 51st district, Assemblyman Juan Vargas (D) announced in February that he would take on seven-term Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), an old nemesis.

“Term limits is a motivating factor” in such contests, says Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which handicaps Golden State political races.

Political analysts in the Golden State believe that trend will continue, because the state’s term limits for the Legislature — three two-year terms for Assembly members and two four-year terms for state Senators — inevitably create constant turnover in Sacramento and a permanent class of ambitious politicians looking for a new job.

“I think you’ll see more of this — especially if it’s perceived that the incumbent is weak,” Hoffenblum says.

With more than 40 state legislators facing term limits in 2006, it’s fairly surprising that more House Members aren’t facing internecine battles. Unless the boundaries are changed — and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) continues to push a redistricting reform package — all of California’s Congressional districts are tilted heavily toward one party or the other, setting up prime opportunities for primary challenges.

“It means the incumbents have to protect their flanks more,” Hoffenblum says.

It’s early in the cycle, of course, and things could change. But at this stage, after Filner and Woolsey, Rep. Pete Stark (D) is seen as the likeliest California Congressman to receive a tough primary challenge.

But so far, Stark appears to be catching a break. Term-limited Assemblyman Johan Klehs (D), who is frequently mentioned as a candidate for Stark’s East Bay seat some day, is considered far more likely to seek a vacant state Senate seat in 2006.

Running for state Senate was an option available to Nation last year, but he chose not to take it. He says the 6th district needs “more aggressive” representation than it is getting from Woolsey.

But it is hard to see where the two differ on major issues, and Nation concedes that most of the liberal groups that have supported his legislative campaigns are likely to stick with Woolsey.

“Most institutions do what they do and go with the inertia of going with the incumbent,” he says.

Nation has criticized Woolsey’s initial support for the No Child Left Behind law — and is touting his early endorsement from Jack O’Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction.

Woolsey replies that as the ranking Member on the Education and Workforce subcommittee on education reform, she is uniquely positioned to “rectify” the problems with the federal education law.

Hoffenblum likens Woolsey and Nation to California’s two U.S. Senators.

“She’s sort of the Barbara Boxer Democrat and Joe Nation is the Dianne Feinstein Democrat,” he says.

It should be noted that Boxer preceded Woolsey in the 6th district seat. In the nine-way Democratic primary in 1992, Woolsey, who was then the vice mayor of Petaluma, prevailed with 26 percent of the vote. Nation, who did not hold any office at the time, finished far back in the pack with just 4 percent.

Nation says his goal is to raise $1 million for the June 2006 primary. The most he’s ever raised for a legislative race was about half that, he says — though he gave most of it away to other Democratic candidates.

Woolsey, 67, defeated her toughest primary opponent, Santa Rosa Mayor Mike Martini, by 60 points in 2002. She had $67,000 in her campaign account through March 31 and says she doesn’t plan to begin campaigning for months.

“I am the most fortunate Congress Member because I have the best district in the country,” she says. “I know that my district feels the same about me because I was re-elected [in 2004] with the most votes of any California Congress Member.”

Meanwhile, 500 miles down the Pacific coast, the race between Vargas and Filner — while enabled by term limits, could turn into a good, old-fashioned grudge match.

The two originally squared off in 1992 for an open seat. Filner, then a San Diego city councilman, won 26 percent in a crowded primary field; Vargas finished fourth with 19 percent.

Vargas then won an election to succeed Filner on the council and ran against him again in a 1996 primary. Filner beat Vargas 55 percent to 45 percent, and Vargas went on to be elected three times to the Assembly.

But the 51st district has changed substantially since 1996, and now has a 53 percent Latino population. That would appear to aid Vargas, who now is also weighing a run for mayor of San Diego, a post that is about to become vacant.

Through March 31, Filner had a comfortable $393,000 in his campaign account; Vargas, who raised a respectable $134,000 in the first three months of 2005, had $85,000 on hand.

In the cases of Woolsey and Filner, national party leaders believe the incumbents are safe, says Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“They’re both strong incumbents who work very hard for their districts,” she says.

But Woolsey predicts that legislative term limits mean that her colleagues should prepare for some of the attacks she is expecting from Nation in their primary contest — especially his contention that she has been in office for too long and that he can provide more energetic representation.

“I guess we’ll be hearing more of that,” she says.